As we well know, they don’t make Susan Sontags anymore—hot, newsmaking ur-intellectuals whose essays were events to equal their subjects, who also wrote knockout fiction, and who was occasionally moved to make inquisitive, brainy, New Wavey films. Of her four features, only Promised Lands (1974) is a straight-on documentary: Fueled by her ambivalent reaction to the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Sontag landed in Sinai and Jerusalem before the fighting was through, armed with a tiny crew and the bullheaded naiveté required to venture blindly out into a minefield, just to get a shot.
The movie does not advertise its alliances, and Sontag’s position is pretty thoroughly hidden in the folds of her imagery—she’s fascinated by the crowds davening at the Wailing Wall (shot in compressed, rhythmic crowds, it has the alien feel of a primitive rite), and the spectacle of modern desert warfare gets its due, down to the rotting corpses left to mummify in the sun. Actually, the film focuses almost entirely on Jews, represented in interviews by lefty writer Yoram Kaniuk and Zionist physicist Yuval Ne’eman, both of whom are wracked with exasperation over their nation’s American-style appetite for violence and the Arabs’ refusal to give up. Both interviewees predictably bemoan the conflict not for its human costs, but for the costs it inflicts on the new state’s idealism. It’s not a shock when Ne’eman memorably compliments the Palestinians as being “the most intelligent” Arabs—due, of course, to their longtime proximity to Jews.
Promised Lands is the only western doc made about the war, but today, the movie seems more remarkable as a Sontag artifact than as political filmmaking. Sontag’s strategy is dialectic, with glimpses of refugee camps all but swallowed up by the Jewish crowds shopping and convening together. The soundtrack is a restless fugue, layering busy commercial radio broadcasts over all the footage, even over interviews, insisting that the DNA of Israel is as much about its military culture as it is about its consumer culture. (This is echoed in an early montage of rooftop peaks, juxtaposing crosses, Muslim crescents, and TV antennae.) It seems odd that the old NYROB vet, who never affected modesty when it came to either culture or politics, would restrict herself to a visitor’s catalog of impressions. But the approach was enough—despite Kaniuk’s definition of the new society as “a democracy, you can say anything”—to get Promised Lands banned in Israel.